The Runaway Soldier: Part One


Hailey Capobianco, Senior Creative Writer

The train moved slowly, in no rush to get the Jewish to the camps where the transported prisoners would spend another year until the war was over.  Italy was hot that day; the sky was stained a dark orange. Geovanna was 17 years old, and she sat next to her aging mother and younger sister as the car traveled to the next camp. Geovanna had no idea where the train was headed; she was told that Fossili was closing and that they were being moved. What she wasn’t told was that they were being moved to Auschwitz—a death and labor camp in Germany.

She felt the car shake violently and then jerk, then suddenly they were stopping.  Everyone rushed to the open car door to see nothing but trees. No one dared try to run because they were malnourished, and they knew that they wouldn’t make it to the tree line, at least not alive.  Staying in the car was the best chance at survival they had.

Antonio was 22, and he’d been in the military for two years now. His family needed him to support them; they were struggling in the times of war. He was walking along the side of the train with two other men in front of him. They had years on him, years in age and years in experience.  Many times Antonio would fall into their shadow hoping to go unnoticed. The train was headed for Auschwitz, this much he knew, but he would soon find out how precious its cargo was. His family was Catholic, but he’d grown up with the Jewish kids, played games on the narrow streets with them.  They were his friends, until things started changing, then suddenly they weren’t considered human anymore, but an unwanted mole on the face of society.  It took all he had to continue to be part of the army, and he did it for his family. His family that he would later find out had died in an air strike.

Wind traveled slowly into the open cars, and calling it a breeze would be an exaggeration. Geovanna held her sister’s wrist, so tiny she could wrap a blade of grass around it.  She remembered times where they ate well, when her mother worried about them being overweight.  She remember curling into her father’s warm chest, her arms wrapped over his gut.  Now he was somewhere else; they were separated at Fossili, and she could imagine him withering away every day. He was a hard worker; he’d done everything asked of him and it still wasn’t enough. She looked over at her mother and realized that she’d never known her parents without the other, but she was starting to see her mother lose hope. Her children were the only thing keeping her alive at this point, food certainly wasn’t.  The soldiers walked past the doors, and people moved as quickly as they could out of the way.

“Antonio, stay at this car! We’re going to meet the other men for a minute,” The older men called. Antonio stood obediently in front of the open door; he was used to being the low man on the totem pole. They never shared their cigarettes with him, they never invited him to the poker games; the believed that he was a sympathizer.

They made eye contact, but only because at this moment Geovanna’s sister spat as far as she could in Antonio’s direction. He took in a deep breath, knowing how he should react, putting the fear of God into everyone around, then he breathed out. Geovanna yanked her sister back, scolding her for the trouble they were about to get into.

Antonio watched the young girl’s eyes expand, terrified of what he stood for, terrified of the twisted cross on his uniform. The rest of the car remained silent, waiting patiently for his lesson. The younger kids pulled their knees into their gowns and buried their heads, the elders struggled to sit up straight.

“She’s so young, it’s hard to know any better,” was all he muttered, and no one reacted to his words. They wouldn’t risk being grateful out loud; they just exchanged looks of gratitude amongst themselves. As Geovanna’s eyes thanked him, he noticed how bright they still were. While everyone else’s lost color, lost hope, hers shone brighter than the lightning in a storm. She turned away from his glance, mistaking his admiration for something else. She glanced back up to find him turned around, the crisp corners of his uniform casting a shadow into the car.

It was obvious that the stop was made for the soldiers; they must’ve gotten bored. Knowing none of the smart Jews would jump from a moving train, they stopped it. Shouting erupted from about three cars down, and Antonio looked over to see two gowns running into the trees. Then he observed five men in green uniforms watching, laughing as they enjoyed the show. Antonio couldn’t look away, it was like watching a train wreck, you don’t want to see, but you can’t help but look anyway. The women fell just before the tree line, one recovered quickly, attempting to help the other, but it seemed her leg had broken. The five men walked over with no weapons, Antonio could only hope they would bring them back.

Ten minutes later the train started back up, two women short.

The sun set, and the sky now black, the stars masked by the smoke and pollution. Some people were able to sleep, but Geovanna was not one. She watched her sister lie in her mother’s lap as the train bounced along the tracks. Antonio had shut the car door before heading back to the soldiers’ car. The train carried more than just Jewish prisoners; it also held livestock, from what Geovanna could smell, probably cows. The fact that the cows were eating better than the Jews on the train occurred to just about everyone, but no one would say anything.

The sun rose, and as the heat built inside the car, many of the younger kids experienced fainting spells. Anyone still awake was gagging on the smell that filled the car; it was not all from the cows. They weren’t allowed out of the cars, so many had designated a spot on the train for bathroom duties, but many were too young to understand.

A few hours later the train came to a stop, and the fear of arrival set in. Geovanna moved so she was closer to the car door, to be the last one out was a scary thought. Her mother slowly made her way to the door, her arms so thin and weak that just watching her push herself was frightening. They could hear the soldiers banging their sticks against the train, causing all the inconvenience they could. Soon the door slid open with Antonio stationed outside. This stop was not only for the soldiers, but the cattle. Geovanna watched as the cows were unloaded and herded into the large field adjacent the train. They were roaming, eating, stretching, everything she could only wish to do.

She was the closest one to the door, with Antonio only a few feet from her, and she sat with her legs crossed in front of her. He noticed more of her features this time, tried to imagine what she would look like healthy. Her hair was shaved and matted at the back of her head, it didn’t appear clean because of all the dirt, but somehow he imagined her with clean, shiny hair. He imagined her cheeks full and blushed, her lips pursed and painted. He ignored the bone showing through her skin and imagined some meat on them, he saw her without all the dirty scrapes on her hands and knees. Finally he saw her in a new outfit, the dirty blue gown was not part of a healthy Geovanna, not that he knew her name.

While he imagined her healthy, she noticed how handsome he was. The strong jawline and short black hair, his eyes a piercing blue. The color reminded her of a vacation she’d been on when she was younger and the family had gone to the ocean. She remembered sitting in her mother’s lap while her father buried their feet in the sand. Antonio wasn’t thin, but he had built muscle and was undeniably attractive, and young. He didn’t have a big gut, but she could see that he had eaten well. She missed worrying about her weight, now all she worried about was how thin is too thin.

”What’s your name?” he asked, but she just stared at him, unsure if she heard him correctly,

”Me?” She asked? He nodded with a quiet laugh.

”Geovanna,” she said, and he smiled at her. She looked at him for a second longer, then asked for his name.

”Antonio,” he said quietly, and she returned his smile. This was the first conversation between Antonio and Geovanna, but it would not be the last. The train had two more days til it would reach its destination. With two stops per day, Antonio couldn’t wait to stand guard at the fifth train car. With two stops per day, Geovanna couldn’t wait to sit in front of the door. This was the only friendly contact the both of them had had in a couple years.

The second day came slowly, and Antonio left the car door open as the train traveled through the night. It aired out the awful smell that would soon set again. Geovanna slept that second night, her head resting on the sharp shoulder of a stranger. When she finally awoke, the train was already stopped. It was the shaking that had awakened her, but Antonio was not outside the door yet. She made her way over to the door, sitting as she did before.

When he arrived he came with two baguettes, just the sight of the bread caused their mouths to open, no longer dry. He handed the full baguettes to Geovanna’s mother, who in turn broke off fairly even pieces and handed them out, the younger kids getting bigger pieces. Geovanna was turned, awaiting her piece when he tapped her shoulder. She turned, and with great discretion, he handed her not only bread, but a piece of meat and cheese stuffed in the middle.  Her eyes grew wide as she slipped it into her lap. Everyone was watching her mother because she had the bread, so no one noticed the gift. When her mother handed her the last piece of bread, she carefully switched it with the one with hidden meat and cheese. She ate it, her body suddenly grateful for such nutrients. As the door shut, and it became dark in the car, she took out the other piece of bread, ready to eat it when guilt struck her hard. She made her way over to the youngest passenger, a five year old boy. He was asleep, so she slid the bread into his clenched fist, a surprise for when he awakened.